It is impossible to imagine that the Florida Highwaymen artists would have existed as a group without Alfred Hair. Known as much for his visionary skills as a salesman, leader, and entrepreneur as he is as an artist, it was Hair’s foresight in knowing that what the Highwaymen artists painted could sell, and how to sell it at a time of deep racial divide and inequality for Black people in the South, that brought the loosely organized group of African-American painters together and firmly planted Hair as the “ideas man” and driving force behind the Highwaymen in the retelling of their history.
Born May 20, 1941 in Fort Pierce, Fla., Alfred Hair was one of seven children, including two brothers and four sisters. He was raised in Fort Pierce and attended the Lincoln Park Academy, where his talent as an artist was first noticed by his art teacher Zanobia Jefferson. Jefferson tutored Hair privately during his time at Lincoln Park Academy, and eventually introduced him to A.E. “Bean” Backus.
Meeting Backus was a turning point in Hair’s young life. A widely renown white painter in Florida, Backus’ studio in Fort Pierce was a gathering spot for the area’s artistic and bohemian communities, and he encouraged Hair in his work. While Backus encouraged a handful of the Highwaymen painters as young men, only Hair received formal lessons from the established older painter. After a few years of mentorship with Backus – who encouraged Hair to focus his efforts on landscape painting – Hair set out on his own to sell his works. No mean feat in the Jim Crow-era south where galleries and traditional venues for artists were off-limits to Black painters.
In a move that would prove savvy enough to not only earn himself but the group of friends and relatives he recruited to his enterprise income far beyond what they could expect working in the local citrus groves and packing houses, Hair took his work on the road. Selling door-to-door and from his car as he’d seen his friend (and eventual fellow Highwaymen artist) Harold Newton do, Hair quickly realized that there was a demand for his work, but making more money would require more production, and a sales effort that wouldn’t take time away from his painting.
“He had the game plan, the vision and the business sense to monetize his creative talents,” Marshall Adams, executive director of the Backus Museum and Gallery told Indian River Magazine. “Undoubtedly, he could have painted slower, but he decided to streamline many aspects of Backus’ paintings. His critical review was whether people bought them or not.”
In a short period of time, Alfred Hair’s enterprise grew into a full-fledged business. Groups of friends made frames out of wood molding, another group of painters lined up Upsom board “canvases” and worked, in assembly line fashion, from one painting to the next, painting in foregrounds and skies, then filling in the trees, grasses, and landscape details as they went. Working in various areas of his home in Fort Pierce – a utility room, a porch, the backyard – Hair would have as many as twenty paintings of his own going at once and would sell as many as fifty in a week. A growing group of salesmen took the artists’ work out on the road and sold them to doctors’ offices, motels, and other professional and retail establishments.
“It was like spontaneous combustion,” Gary Monroe, noted Highwaymen scholar and author told the New York Times in 2019. “Alfred encouraged and welcomed all who had an inkling or expressed an interest in painting. There was no organization, no rules, dues or business plan — just like-minded 20-somethings coming together.”
This was the golden era of Highwaymen painting, when for nearly a decade artists like Hair, Newton, Al Black, Livingston “Castro” Roberts, Mary Ann Carroll, and others – 26 in all – were selling their work at a fast clip and enjoying their time doing so. A far cry from the backbreaking work in the fields and groves of Florida’s “Treasure Coast,” the artists’ collective was a festive and joyful undertaking. The Highwaymen Trail, a heritage trail organization run by the city of Fort Pierce and the Florida Humanities Council, reports that, like his mentor Backus, Hair enjoyed the energy of having people around him as he worked. “He served beer and had crab boils. Painting at the Hair home became a festive experience.”
Alfred Hair Murder
The heyday ended when Alfred Hair was shot and killed during an argument with a migrant grove worker in a Fort Pierce bar the night of August 9, 1970. On August 10, The News Tribune carried the news of Hair’s death in a front-page article, reporting that Hair’s assailant “hit a man named Castro Roberts, then hit Hair. Hair reportedly ran out of the building, police said, and Funderburk chased him into the street and shot him … Hair apparently died of two gunshot wounds.”
Despite his early death at the young age of 29, Hair’s legacy lives on in the Highwaymen, and in the accomplished work he left behind. Originally sold for as little as $25 each, an authentic Alfred Hair painting today can sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Considered one of the most accomplished Highwaymen painters, Hair’s gestural and expressionistic work is distinctive in its refined technique despite his “fast painting” style, as well as in his organic use of color washes through sky and water.
“The color, the technique — no one else paints like him, especially the early ones,” Highwaymen collector and art dealer Roger Lightle told Indian River Magazine. “You can tell right off the bat. It’s the palm trees, one of the trademark images. Another is the bird in flight. You can tell even if it isn’t signed.”
Inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004, Alfred Hair’s work hangs today in numerous collections of note around the world, including the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture and the U.S. Department of State’s illustrious Art in Embassies program.